All dog owners have stories. I can’t believe I haven’t told this story yet. It was hilarious. My daughter and I were relaxing in the backyard one evening earlier this summer. I can’t remember if it was before or after we drove to Washington. Maybe it was after. First, some background.
Our two German Shepherds, Koda and Ryder, typically lounge around the backyard. But even on the hottest days, once I go outside, it’s playtime. Their favorite game is “I’ve got a thing and you don’t.” Ryder always has the thing. Koda never does. The object Ryder has is not important. Most recently it has been a small rubber tire with a rope attached to the end, but it’s been a stick when no toy is available and when once upon a time it was literally an old piece of newspaper. This scrap of newspaper is paraded around like it is the most coveted piece of property in the world, and Ryder teases Koda that she has it and he doesn’t.
Now, I know that lots of dogs play this game, but for Koda and Ryder, this game has become the linchpin of their relationship. See, Ryder was always a shy, beta-dog type personality. We attribute this to Mojo, who was an adult when Ryder arrived at our house as a puppy. Mojo was unruly and old and didn’t play, so she never played. Once Koda entered the picture, she had somebody to play with, so this whole other side we’d never seen before suddenly appeared.
Having Koda has been a gift for Ryder because she can exhibit all this play behavior. Because she can play, I think, she has also grown a more dominant personality. For whatever reason, even though Koda outweighs her by at least twenty pounds and is much larger, he won’t oppose her. I’ve seen him literally drop the thing for her so that she can pick it up and then he can chase her and whine that he doesn’t have the thing. It’s a bewildering relationship to me, but it seems to work for these two dogs.
However, one of Koda’s favorite game is fetch. He likes to chase the toy, munch on it a couple of times, then bring it back to me. He does this much more than any other dog we’ve owned. Unfortunately, that game has led to pooping problems for him, but not the pooping problems you’re thinking of. He didn’t eat the toy and have a bad BM. It was something much more insidious.
Yep. You heard that right.
I’m still setting the stage, and the last thing you need to know is that Ryder is now almost ten years old. Koda is past eleven. These are old dogs. Like many shepherds, Ryder’s hips are starting to go. We give her vitamin pills for joint health and an aspirin for pain management, but there is only so much you can do to stave off the inevitable. Sometimes when the brute bumps into her, she sits down. Other times, his bumps don’t bother her. Her hips are going, but they aren’t gone.
So back to the fetch game that Koda plays and Ryder doesn’t. She’s never liked fetch. Ryder only likes to play that “chase me when I have that thing you want” game. As he’s gotten older, he cares less and less for this game. Sometimes, he just wants to play fetch, and he gets frustrated when she takes the toy so he can’t play fetch!
(I know, common sense dictates that we just add a second object and this should fix everything. But these are dog minds and they don’t work that way. No amount of Frisbees or tennis balls can change the fact that there is one toy to rule them all and it is the only one that can be played with.)
In trying to help Koda, I’ve put Ryder inside so that he and I can play fetch. We play fetch four or five times until he gets too tired. (He’s an old dog after all.) He looks so happy and content, Brina and I remark how we wish everybody could have that level of contentment.
When I let Ryder out later, though, she goes right up, stands over him, and tries to take the toy. Koda isn’t having any of this. He growls back, which is odd. He never growls at her.
Ryder doesn’t know what to do with this. Her Koda is broken. He’s not supposed to growl. He’s supposed to drop the rubber toy.
But in the moment, this toy is still the centerpiece of their relationship, and it isn’t working the way it’s supposed to because Koda won’t let Ryder have it. So she grabs one end and tugs it.
Koda bites down harder and stands up.
They go chest-to-chest. Ryder tries to jump on Koda. Koda shoves Ryder back. Because of her bad hips, Ryder yelps as she jumps. She’s putting way too much pressure on her hips. She yelps like a little puppy. It comes off very high pitched and “don’t hurt me.” She’s always yelped like this, even before her hips went bad. And Koda always, ALWAYS gives in at this point. But not today. He wants his toy, he’s fond of his toy, why won’t you just leave me alone? his behavior says.
Ryder tries again and again to jump on him. Probably five or six times she does this, with the same results. She raises up, she yelps in pain, he pushes her back, and she gets nowhere. I’m about to stand up and stop this because she is now mostly hunched over on her hips. She is so upset by this lapse in decorum she’s willing to injure herself to stop him.
But at this point, the two dogs go their separate ways. She wanders to one side of the yard and he lays back down and chews the scrap rubber victoriously until he is bored thirty or forty seconds later and walks away.
Ryder runs in, scoops up the toy, and plays with it. But by this time, Koda is done with the toy and is sniffing the grass. Ryder drops the toy. It’s lost its appeal. She gets a drink of water from the small galvanized metal stock tank used as their water bowl.
Brina and I continue our conversation, having watched and laughed about the dogs. We talk about her internship, the summer, what she is thinking for graduate school. The sun starts to get low in the sky. The temperature feels good finally. The Houston humidity finally begins to dissolve. Koda sniffs around for a place to go to the bathroom.
Out of the corner of my eye I see Ryder lurking on the edge of the patio. Body low to the ground, she is stalking along the patio. Before we can react, she charges across the lawn, and she has always been fast. Old bad hips is across the lawn like a flash of lightning and BOOM she collides with poor Koda right in the middle of dropping his business. He is shocked, we are shocked, and Ryder jumps on him. There is nothing he can do. The poor dog is trying to finish pooping AND defend himself. He’s hunched over, trying to extend his legs while in mid-poop. His face is a mix of confusion and terror.
I want to add: there was no blood and no biting. She was not “attacking” Koda. She was getting payback by messing with his mind. It worked. I don’t think Koda would be more confused if tiny cat ninjas dropped out of the sky and started dancing a conga line around him.
“RYDER!” We yell. She immediately comes when called. She walks off as if nothing has ever happened. She did no wrong. She’s just a dog taking a stroll. But while Brina and I are talking about this crazy thing we’ve just witnessed and Koda is trying to continue doing his duty, that dog slinks under the table and her bad hips go up in the air. She is ready to pounce.
Brina jumps up, opens the door, and forces her inside so that the old man can poop in peace, because isn’t that what we all really want in life? Just to poop in peace?
There is often a question about dogs and their emotional capacity or state of mind. Are we anthropomorphizing them, seeing emotions that aren’t there? Are dogs loving? Sad? Angry? Well, for sure, I will attest that vindictiveness can be attributed to dogs. And apparently there’s no creature more vindictive than a dog that’s been refused the one toy that rules them all.